Verdict on Prayut’s Army residence may be a ‘fire exit’ for govt to escape ongoing conflict
The country is counting down to December 2, when the Constitutional Court is scheduled to rule if Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha should lose his post for violating the charter.
Just days before Wednesday’s verdict, observers remain divided as to whether the court will send Prayut packing – in the same way as it has done for three prime ministers in the past.
Thai PBS World’s Political Desk looks at facts and the different scenarios that may arise.
Opposition leader Sompong Amornwiwat accuses General Prayut of breaching the Constitution by staying on at an official Army residence, inside the First Infantry Battalion of Royal Guards on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road in Bangkok, after his retirement from the military at the end of September 2014.
The case was sent to the Constitutional Court by House Speaker Chuan Leekpai at Sompong’s request.
General Prayut, who staged the May 2014 coup while serving as Army chief, is accused of violating Sections 184 and 186 of the Constitution that forbid a government minister from “receiving any special money or benefit from a government agency, state agency or state enterprise apart from that given by the government agency, state agency or state enterprise to other persons in the ordinary course of business”.
In so doing, the opposition leader’s petition alleges, the PM also violated Section 160 of the Constitution which states: “A minister must not behave in ways that constitute a serious violation of or failure to comply with ethical standards.”
According to Section 170, a violation of Section 160 warrants termination of the culprit’s ministerial post.
The defendant’s arguments
In his written testimony submitted to the Constitutional Court, General Prayut argued that he had to stay at the official Army residence because the prime minister’s official residence, Baan Phitsanulok, was being renovated, according to a Parliament source familiar with the matter.
Also, the PM argued that his security team suggested he live at the Army residence for safety. Hence, he said, the court should dismiss the petition against him.
The Army has informed the court that the Army residence was provided to General Prayut because he is prime minister and deserves the honour and security it provides. Similar housing has been provided to other former Army chiefs who are members of the Cabinet, the Privy Council and Parliament, the Army says.
If the court acquits him, it will be business as usual for the prime minister. He is likely to claim that the ruling confirms his legitimacy.
However, if he is found guilty, General Prayut will immediately lose his premiership and be disqualified from holding government office for two years, as per the Constitution.
Members of his Cabinet will then become caretaker ministers, pending the appointment of a new prime minister and a new Cabinet.
The law does not prohibit a convicted prime minister from staying on in a caretaker role. But Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who is in charge of the government’s legal affairs, said General Prayut would likely choose not to take it.
Prayut may opt to dissolve the House of Representatives before the court issues its verdict, to avoid political repercussions. He has repeatedly refused to resign as prime minister. And while the chance of him dissolving the House is slim – it is not an impossibility.
Many observers expect Prayut will be spared by the court, but a minority confidently predict a “guilty” ruling.
Veteran political activist Jatuporn Prompan said he was among the “1 per cent” who are convinced that Prayut will be ousted by the case.
“The situation has changed. Politics has come to a dead end and removing General Prayut from office is the only way to get him off the playing board. This case provides a rare chance to do so,” Jatuporn said.
For some analysts, the court verdict on December 2 presents a “ladder” for the prime minister to climb down, plus a “fire exit” for Thailand to escape the worsening political crisis.
However, Rangsit University political scientist Wanwichit Boonprong disagrees, saying Prayut “will certainly be spared by the court”.
He views the opposition’s case against the PM as a move to further amplify accusations of double standards against the Constitutional Court and to expand the alliance against General Prayut.
“Legally speaking, Prayut may not have violated the law. But his legitimacy will be questioned and undermined,” the academic said.
Selecting a new PM
If Prayut is disqualified by the court, Parliament will start its search for a new prime minister among candidates nominated by major political parties before last year’s general election.
As happened after the 2019 election, a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate will first try to select a new prime minister from the parties’ candidates.
Excluding Prayut and the candidate nominated by the now-defunct Future Forward Party, there would be five PM candidates. Two of them are from the coalition – Democrat Party’s Abhisit Vejjajiva and Bhumjaithai’s Anutin Charnvirakul – and the other three are from the opposition Pheu Thai Party – Sudarat Keyuraphan, Chadchart Sittipunt and Chaikasem Nitisiri.
To be elected PM, the candidate would need support from a majority of both Houses. If that majority is not achieved, they may vote to allow outsiders as PM candidates. Support from at least two-thirds of both Houses is required for this option to be adopted.
The 250 junta-appointed senators are key players in the nomination of PM candidates as well as the selection of a new prime minister. Almost all of them – with the Senate speaker excluded – voted for General Prayut to become prime minister.
Sent packing by court
Since the Constitutional Court’s establishment in 1997, three prime ministers have lost their seats as a result of its rulings.
In September 2008, Samak Sundaravej, prime minister for the People Power Party affiliated with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was found guilty of violating the constitutional rule banning the prime minister from being an employee of any business or individual. Samak was hired by a television production house to host a TV cooking programme.
Samak’s immediate successor, Somchai Wongsawat, also from People Power, lost his PM seat after the Constitutional Court ruled in December 2008 that a party executive, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, was guilty of vote-buying. That was grounds for the court to order People Power dissolved for violating the charter.
All its executive members – Somchai included – were banned from politics for five years, resulting in him losing his PM seat despite not being targeted individually by the court ruling.
In May 2014, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female prime minister and Thaksin’s sister, was disqualified by the Constitutional Court. The court ruled that Yingluck had violated the charter by transferring Thawil Pliensri from his post as National Security Council secretary-general in 2011.
Yingluck was found to have abused her power as prime minister by moving Thawil to make way for Priewpan Damapong, who is a brother of Thaksin’s then-wife Pojaman, to be appointed as national police chief. Then-police chief Wichean Potephosree was appointed to replace Thawil, and Priewpan succeeded Wichean.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk
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